Giving Birth

I never set out to write a science fiction book. TWIN was born from the blending of two things: my regular daydreams about deserted-island survival scenarios and a conversation between a brother and sister that showed up in my head one day. Over time, the brother and sister became more than just characters in a scene. They become people, and you can’t be a person without having a history and a home. So I gave them both.

“No matter what you may have heard, the characters don’t write their story. Oh, people love to believe that, and certain writers love to tell it–I was typing away and then all of a sudden it was if I had been possessed. The story was unfolding before me. I had been hijacked by my own characters. I was no longer in control. Yeah, yeah, yeah. What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All of the decisions are yours.”

–Ann Patchett, This is the Story of a Happy Marriage

If I had been thinking about what would make an easy novel to write, I might have given them a time and place a little closer to mine. But I wasn’t writing; I was daydreaming. And the story played out thrillingly in a colony on a set of planets circling a far-off star. This was all fine because in my head I could be vague about the details, and the setting was incredibly compelling without anyone there to question how it would all work. The daydreaming part of writing really is the best.

But beautiful thoughts aren’t art. Art has to exist in the real world. A story isn’t a story until I give it physical form, until I give it words.

“…to paint a picture or to write a story or to compose a song is an incarnational activity. The artist is a servant who is willing to be a birthgiver. In a very real sense, the artist (male or female) should be like Mary who, when the angel told her that she was to bear the Messiah, was obedient to the command.”

–Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water

I love this idea of incarnation, of taking something insubstantial and giving it substance. I won’t be overly self-important and say that I am serving a work greater than myself. It’s just a story, but Cara and Tom’s story was one I wanted to tell. And just like that, I’m a forty-something mom writing a science fiction novel. Let’s just say that when people at your kid’s softball game ask you what you do for a living, that is not what they expect you to say.

Since I started working on TWIN full-time, I’ve made a conscious choice to read other science fiction written by women. It’s not a genre known for a lot of female voices, but when you look, you can find gold, from well-known pioneers like Ursula LeGuin and Madeleine L’Engle and Robin Hobb to newer artists like Nnedi Okorafor and Ann Leckie and Laini Taylor. I want to say, as feminists have tried to say about many things, that science fiction is science fiction no matter who writes it. The idea that there is an inherent difference between art made by a man and art made by a woman makes us bristle because we reject the long history of being told that our voice was less rational, less disciplined, less intelligent, just less. But can we reject that history without rejecting the differences that set us apart?

The women I read write powerfully. They write incisively. They write intelligently. They also write as women. This is a very real thing. I won’t try to define what makes a woman’s voice a woman’s voice because any definition would take away more than it added. Every female writer has a different voice in the same way that every writer has a different voice. But our voice is made up of all that we are, and among many other things, what we are is women.

We’re back to the idea of incarnation. When Mary gave birth to a child that was God, she also gave birth to a child that was a man. His human form came from his mother. He was God’s son, something completely unknown and unknowable, and he was also her son, and I imagine that he looked like her. This is the way our art works, too. We reach out and capture something, some truth, some reality, some intangible thing that matters to us all, but when we give it form, we also make it in our image. It speaks in our voice. It looks like us.

Though I voraciously read science fiction no matter who writes it, I find a resonance in what other women have written that makes the truths they’ve grasped for even more powerful to me. This is why we need art from everyone. We need art from men and from women. We need art from people of every shade of skin and every cultural background. We need art from the young and from the old. So we can see truth walking around with many different faces. And maybe find one that looks familiar. And maybe find ourselves changed by what we’ve seen.

In the next couple of weeks, I’m going to write more about about some of these women who are inspiring me. I want you to meet them, or at least the parts of them they’ll let you see in their work. I hope you’ll find, as I have, that their imaginary worlds ripple into your real world and leave behind patterns that you’d never have seen otherwise. It might get a little uncomfortable along the way, but I promise it will be worth it. First up, next week: Nnedi Okorafor. She’s going to light you up.
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